Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 455

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A “gilgul” is the phenomenological occurrence of souls shifting from person to person. In the back of a taxicab, a transitory vehicle, Charles experiences his transformation into a Jewish man. In several of Nathan Englander’s stories, alienated characters seek to be part of a larger group yet remain isolated. Rather than the isolation associated with alienation, Charles—the protagonist in “The Gilgul of Park Avenue”—experiences a disconnection from his earlier life. With this disruption, he experiences a dynamic fear of becoming alienated from his Christian wife, Sue.

Charles has always been forthright with Sue, even when he was trying to tease her about his fidelity. Sue tolerated his teasing about running off with his secretary; this reflected the openness of their relationship. The theme of male/female relationships is strongly explored through the interaction of Charles, who has lived for fifty-five years as a nonpracticing Christian, and his wife of twenty-seven years, Sue. Even though Charles experiences a miraculous change and tries to share his newly discovered reality with others, including the cabdriver, his psychologist, and a rabbi from the R-HMJRC, he does not feel comfortable discussing his new experience.

Situational humor is threaded throughout the story. First, Charles’s transformation in a taxicab into a believer of a completely different religion is inexplicable. Second, Sue has just had a root canal and is unable to control her facial features when she tries to respond to Charles’s epiphany. Third, Sue’s rigid fabric-and color-coordinated decorating techniques foreshadow her enormous distaste for the paper and plastic used at the kosher dinner she serves for Charles, the psychologist, and the rabbi. Fourth, Charles tries to adhere to Jewish laws such as placing a mezuzah containing special blessings on his doorpost. Because he does not know where to buy one, he pries one from his Jewish neighbors’ door because the neighbor does not follow the Jewish laws, and therefore, he thinks the neighbor will not miss the mezuzah.

Although Charles experiences no difference in his sensory perceptions, he understands that being Jewish comes with specific guidelines. However, Sue becomes more frustrated with each new rule that Charles tries to add: His new religion requires eating kosher food, praying with a skullcap, and using a prayer shawl. At one point, Charles notices that Sue sounds more Jewish than he does, meaning that she is complaining and nagging in a stereotypical Jewish way. Their relationship is based on teasing and banter, but when Charles explains that he is Jewish, she initially is at a loss for a retort.

In the final scene, Charles and Sue face each other openly. His hope is that Sue recognizes the change in his soul and loves him in his transformed existence.